Smallfoot: Too “Liberal” for Evangelicals?

Last week I saw a delightful little cartoon, “Smallfoot” in the theater. I expected a silly kid’s cartoon but was surprised at the postmodern message. I found it had a much deeper message than I expected. And of course, was curious to see the evangelical response as the movie’s agenda was to reassure kids that it was ok to question dogma, that it was not bad to question authority.

I won’t go into the details of the storyline but it involved a society of yetis whose culture revolved around the sayings/rules written on small stones and worn as a robe by the spiritual leader of the yeti clan. The stones were unquestionably excepted as propositional truth. Sound familiar? In short, the stones were devised by the “stonekeepers” to protect the yeti clan from the dangers “out there” beneath the clouds, i.e., humans.

The parallels to modern evangelicalism were not lost on the evangelical gatekeepers: the Gospel Coalition. The response was, swift and negative. First off, the author, Bret McCracken uses a typical evangelical response by reversing a fundamentalist principal and applying it as a negative to liberals:

“If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,” one yeti says, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.”

This is odd, because it is not actually a liberal statement, but one fundamentalists use constantly as a reason for the inerrancy of scripture. The Bible as a whole must be entirely inerrant or it cannot be trusted at all. It is the “house of cards” analogy that fundamentalist like James Orr (1844-1913) rejected outright as “a most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.” I had a rather lengthy and unproductive dialogue with an inerrantist on my blog last year, Inerrancy At any rate, this is an entirely misleading and dishonest assessment of progressive thought on the inspiration of scripture.

McCracken goes on to state “Smallfoot joins films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (among many others) in showing how seeking truth can be disruptive and dangerous, but ultimately freeing. These films also show how safe, utopian communities, insulated from the dangers outside (whether in different people or different ideas), never work if they are sustained by deception and fear-based control.”

I wonder if Mr. McCracken actually understands how evangelicalism works? He goes on to declare that the above is not the problem but seeing knowledge as “power” is: “This sort of faith is about fear and control, suppressing knowledge in order to preserve power. And thus the flipside is also about power. Knowledge, curiosity, facts, discovery—these are framed in the film as tools of empowerment. Taking down the man. Breaking free from systems of control. Putting power in new hands. Getting woke.”

If only the religious right was not about power, but it is naive to think otherwise and this is where The Gospel Coalition’s blindside resides: the inability to see that the Religious Right is ALL about power. By nature, authoritarian structures are not question based, but based on the few in power who establish the rules of governance. I will address whether or not evangelicalism is a threat to a free democratic society in a future post.

”Taking down the man,” is the real fear here. Who is the “man?” Well, white evangelical men is the obvious answer. The framers of the Democratic experiment known as the United States…all white men. In American fundamentalist Protestant circles, yep, all white men. And what else is the doctrine of eternal torment and hell for unbelievers about if it isn’t about “fear-based control?” American culture has been framed almost exclusively from the perspective of white male privilege, including conservative Christianity.

Evangelicalism as a whole is based on “if-then” propositions. Only, the ifs are not really ifs but self-evident “truths” that are excepted unquestionably, and that my friend is what the movie is getting at. Roger E Moore is one evangelical who “gets” this and has written why this propositional approach among evangelicals prevents true reforms within the movement. The stones in the movie are accepted as “facts,” even though they are not. This is a problem when we approach religions based on doctrinal “facts,” especially when the truths are not self-evident and at times contradictory.

McCracken goes on to say, “The film’s obsession with power is certainly of a piece with the 2018 zeitgeist, where gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL, are partisan, bitter battlefields over power. To our shame, many evangelicals have indeed become more known for our desperate grip on power than our Christ-like, gospel-shaped lives. And grievously, science, knowledge, and “facts” have also become pawns in the great power battles of our time.

Smallfoot mirrors this dysfunctional world and sadly encourages the next generation to follow suit. It shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.”

In this McCracken unwittingly betrays the problem with evangelicalism and its interaction with the non-evangelical: it views itself in a cosmic power struggle with society, “gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL.” Rather than seeking ways to work WITH society to achieve a better world, the world’s attempts are suspect and to be avoided. Unfortunately, this puts most evangelicals and certainly their leadership actually working against a better, more loving and exclusive society.

The movie ends on a happy note with the barrier between humans and yetis torn down and the beginnings of a diverse cooperative society. But this does not fit the evangelical narrative at all. First of all, it removes the “us vs them” mentality that shapes much of evangelicalism. Authoritarian structures need inferiors in order to maintain their superior status. The Romans had the Christians, Hitler had the Jews. Fundamentalism has had numerous inferior people groups in the past: Jews, Catholics, Liberals and black athletes who dare suggest there is a race problem in America.

Secondly, authoritarian structures like evangelicalism and fundamentalism function on the premise that there is unity in conformity. Conformity plays a big part in the movie. The yeti clan moves along smoothly because no one is allowed to rock the boat. Let me be very clear about this, evangelicalism does not entertain much diversity. Authoritarian structures are not set up for diversity. They crumble under non conformity. Conformity was the strength of the Roman Catholic Church for a millennia. Because Protestants could not agree on the “stones” to follow, but still had to have absolute conformity, they split into numerous denominations, and at numerous times actually killed each other. So it is not the search for answers that is the danger here, but denial of that search in favor of a “hive mentality.” In fact, those in yeti society that are nonconformists are forced to meet in secret to avoid being astracized. Christians should do well to remember that once they had to meet secretly in the catacombs because they did not fit into an authoritarian society.

Perhaps a more balanced assessment can be found Here 

“One of the characters in “Smallfoot” says something like this: “Truth is complicated and can be scary, but it’s better than believing a lie.” Truth is what we should always seek. We should blindly accept nothing, and our Lord does not ask us to do so. He has given us a world which showcases His creativity and declares His glory. He has given us His Word which resounds with truth and reason. Its claims can be answered. Its Author can be trusted. Its Savior can be called upon. Faith is not blindly accepting the flawed traditions of men… it is trusting completely in the One who made us and sustains us. And when we do so, we see that empty traditions, the world’s lies and the secular teachings of mere man that we may have once believed now ring false.”

“Much of the allegory will be far above the heads of very young children but should provide lots to think about for preteens through adults. Can a lie be a “good” lie? Should we ever be willing to deny the truth in order to protect others? Is it okay to question what we have always been taught? I am actually thankful for a film which presents a platform for such thought… or better yet, discussion. Even if this film may have been intended to cause viewers to doubt religious teachings, it is always good to examine why we believe what we believe.”

And with that I agree. It is always good to examine what we believe.

—————————-

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/smallfoot-saying-faith-science/

https://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2018/smallfoot2018.html

Iron Age Evangelicalism: How Veneration of the Bible has Hurt the Church

Well, it’s been one of those weeks. I sprained my back badly a month ago, so I’ve been dealing with nagging pain, making it hard to concentrate on a number of things and get any work done. In addition, my attempts to address the church’s responsibility towards social justice online have been met with contempt, anger and accusations of heresy from evangelicals that have read my comments. It can be downright discouraging.

I’ve addressed some of what I believe are the underlying reasons for evangelical hostility to social justice in a couple of previous posts. I’d like to discuss an issue that has broader implications for evangelical theology and social interaction: that of their views on the ontology of scripture itself. The underlying principal for the Protestant critique and eventual separation from Catholicism was a renewed emphasis on the canonical scripture: the Bible.

As a result “sola scriptura” became the Protestant battle cry. Unfortunately, that has led to some stagnation in the Protestant church. It would seem ironic, that a renewed enthusiasm for scripture would actually impede the church from growing spiritually, but I believe it has. Over and over last week I heard the complaint that “social justice” wasn’t in the Bible, or that it wasn’t biblical. That it was the “spirit of this age,” that the government has no right to force us to subsidize the poor, etc.. Of course, this was similar to Christian complaints against abolition preceding the American Civil War.

I think the reason for this vehement denial lies in the way evangelicals, especially those that are closet fundamentalists, venerate scripture. Scripture is the final word, literally. There is no need to improve, how could one possibly improve upon God’s very own words? In a word, evangelicals tend to get stuck in the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. The sociological mores, ethical and moral situations and solutions of 2-3 thousand years ago, become, de facto, God’s solutions. This has caused all sorts of problems when it comes to social justice, from slavery, to women’s equality, Gay rights and the death penalty.

The veneration of scripture has, in some reformed traditions, especially among Calvinists, effectively replaced the work of the Holy Spirit. Cessationists like John MacArthur, believe much of the prophetic work of the Holy Spirit ended after the Apostolic Age. The prophetic function of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers and the subsequent corrections for the church are viewed with suspicion and criticized as too subjective. Additionally, the Bible has, in evangelical parlance, replaced, or is given much greater attention as the “Word of God,” than Jesus himself as the Word of God.

When the church views scripture in this fashion, ethics get “frozen in time.” Women are forever subordinate to men, Gays are always an “abomination,” war becomes “just,” the death penalty becomes justifiable, killing one’s enemies becomes a part of the Kingdom narrative and God’s “final solution” involves violence. As a result, the church becomes unable to respond in a relevant way to changing social events. This is what the “culture wars” are about: the church’s inadequacy to deal with change.

Following the Bible is vastly different than following Jesus. The Bible is not a repository of “facts” about God, nor is it a definitive guide to “Christian living and ethics.” It points to something much greater than itself. In our churches we should have more “Jesus study” than “Bible study.” This would involve grappling with an ever changing social and political environment and asking how would the Holy Spirit have us respond in a way that does justice and shows love and mercy. It would be WWJD on steroids. Jesus becomes the touchstone for us rather than the Bible itself.

Unfortunately, the inability of much of the church to think further than the Iron Age, or the 16th century reformers reinterpretation of the Bible has made the gospel message largely irrelevant. Reformed theologians can’t seem to move past the shadow of John Calvin, regurgitating the same thoughts over and over again. This is not how the church should move forward in the 21st century. This is not how the church should meet new challenges. We need to be looking forward, not backward. If not, evangelicalism a century from now will be viewed as a short-lived stumbling block to the Kingdom of God and not a major contributor to its furtherance. 

The Church as Contributor to Social Injustice

I am going to continue my previous post on the evangelical statement put forth by John MacArthur as a number of issues have come to my attention in my subsequent interactions with evangelicals online. Some clarifications need to be made.

First, as I have pointed out in my previous post, much of this is about jockeying for control of evangelicalism itself. This battle is not new, but began in earnest within the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) three decades ago. Southern Baptists comprise the majority of evangelicalism with many “hidden” branches posing as “unaffiliated” or “nondenominational.” Moderates were forced out of the denomination over a period of two decades back in the 80’s and 90’s. There was a concerted effort to replace moderates with fundamentalists in their educational system. Since then the denomination has doubled down on the efforts to squelch any attempts at reform. MacArthur is a product of that wing of evangelicalism.

Secondly, although both fundamentalist Christians and Progressive Christians present Social Justice as either, a. irrelevant or b. central to the Gospel, the truth of the matter is more complex. By quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus began his ministry with a reference to social justice, but his message was never about reforming the Roman government. It was directed at social injustice and religious hypocrisy WITHIN RELIGION. This is what initially got Jesus in trouble. It was his prophetic indictment of the Jewish religious authorities using their power to exploit others. This is why many evangelicals will point out (correctly) that Jesus never tried to change the government or shame the government into social programs that benefited the poor, etc..

So here is where it gets awkward for the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism. Historically they have been one of the prime perpetrators of social injustice in America. For the past 150 years, white fundamentalism has been a major hurdle and has systematically targeted people of color as well as Catholics, Jews, women, Gays, and a host of others. Bolstered with Bible verses and the assurance of an inerrant Bible, preachers in the South convinced their parishioners that God was behind their cause. Much like MacArthur and his dismissal of social justice, these pastors were convinced the “modern secular” abolitionist goals of the North were a threat to the Gospel and contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.

As the government pushed for social justice for poor Blacks, fundamentalist Christians pushed back hard against those reforms, preferring to exploit others based on race for their own financial gain. It is almost as if the Pharisees were lifted out of first century Palestine and resurrected in the 19th century as Southern Christians. In the end Southern Christians were willing to go to war, claiming states rights. The American Civil War killed over 700,000 people. Sadly, losing the war for cessation did not change their hatred and oppression of Blacks. Instead, they sought all sorts of work-arounds to circumvent laws for Black equality. The next 100 years was spent trying to segregate and marginalize Blacks (and Hispanics) as much as possible and deny them quality of life.

Thirdly, this is not “ancient history.” One of the comments I heard over and over in the 90’s from White conservatives was how sick and tired they were of hearing about “200 years of oppression.” A popular bumper sticker read, “If I’d known it would be this much trouble, I’d have picked my own damn cotton!” In other words, they didn’t believe Black claims of oppression had validity. Tragically, this opinion still affects, to one degree or another, about 70% of White evangelicalism. It has expanded to include more than just people of color. Basically anyone other than White fundamentalists is fair game.

So it is no wonder that MacArthur and 7000 other signers of the Statement on Social Justice feel the struggle for Social Justice is a distraction from the Gospel. They don’t believe the struggle is valid in the first place. They uphold a narrative about race and the place of women that is founded in White male privilege. The use of Scripture is used to validate their own presuppositions and biases.

I would add as a fourth point, that the Gospel, as understood by fundamentalists, is really not the matter of concern here. In the early 20th century, fundamentalists eschewed involvement in politics and war. They were accused of being “unpatriotic.” Subsequently, they have bent over backwards to appear super-patriotic. The American Constitution has become almost as sacrosanct as the Bible itself. The argument about Social Justice has become more of an argument about the role of government in society, and how much intervention is acceptable, than a Biblical discussion on social responsibility. This is why the majority of conservative Christians I talk to say they are unabashedly, Libertarians. 

Because of this willful ignorance of past church failures in the area of social justice that evangelical Christianity has stalled. Meaningful repentance needs to take place before the church can be a “witness to the gospel” in society. The church needs to clean house.

Further:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2018/09/over-7000-pastors-admit-they-dont-follow-jesus/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive+Christian&utm_content=43

John MacArthur and the Great Divorce from Social Justice

It’s been a somewhat challenging past three weeks. I injured my back climbing the ladder on our travel trailer and it is taking a month of Sundays to heal. Normally I would have tried to get a couple of posts in by now, but the pain has been too distracting. So instead of a lengthy post addressing the recent “Statement” on Social Justice by conservatives point by point, I will give a broader assessment of what I think are the underlying reasons Evangelicals felt a need to make the Statement in the first place. In doing so I will be using Diana Butler Bass’  Christianity After Religion

If you’ve been following the struggle for control in Evangelical circles you would be aware of the recent attack on “Social Justice,” by Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, So. CA. A number of excellent responses have been made. Links provided below.  

MacArthur states that they deny “that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.” 

He goes on to state “Clarity on these issues will fortify believers and churches to withstand an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”

“Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.””

The fact that MacArthur fails to define the terms, “intersectionality,” “radical feminism” and “social justice,” I believe is telling, as I do not believe MacArthur himself understands them, nor does he understand the underlying reasons he distrusts modern attempts to achieve social justice. MacArthur’s frame of reference is that of a White male with a successful following, numerous books and a graduate degree from Bob Jones University. He is, to speak, at the top of his game. One of the things about being at the top of the social ladder racially, sexually and gender-wise is one thinks they should define the issues. It’s called speaking from a position of privilege. This is what intersectionality addresses. 

I will not go into the history of Bob Jones University other than to say it was founded on racist, segregationist principals, not the gospel. One can Google it to see its ugly past history. But there are broader issues than just White privilege at play. What I believe we are seeing is something that has played out over and over again, both in ancient Israel and in church history. 

“Woe to you as well, experts in the law!” He replied. “You weigh men down with heavy burdens, but you yourselves will not lift a finger to lighten their load. 47Woe to you! You build tombs for the prophets, but it was your fathers who killed them. 48So you are witnesses who consent to the deeds of your fathers: They killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.…” Luke 11:46-48

What Christians like MacArthur are guilty of is lip service to men like Martin Luther King. While these prophets are alive and calling for social justice the church resists, sometimes violently. Years later they laud the sacrifice and accomplishment of these men and women. It is the height of spiritual blindness.

This, I believe is due to the fact that dominant religious institutions are inherently resistant to the prophetic voice. This was true in Jesus’ day and is just as true today. As Diana Butler Bass states:

“Religious discontent is indistinguishable from the history of spiritual renewal and awakening. Religion is often characterized as contentment, the idea that faith and faithfulness offer peace, security, and certainty. In this mode, God is depicted in kindly ways, the church is an escape from the cares and stresses of the world, and religious leaders as pastors, the caretakers of the flock. Although most faith traditions do offer such surety to believers, religion has another guise as well—the prophetic tradition. In the prophetic mode, faith discomforts the members of community, opens their eyes and hearts to the shortcomings of their own lives and injustice in the world, and presses for human society to more fully embody God’s dream of healing and love for all peoples.

Religious faiths struggle between the pastoral and the prophetic, comfort and agitation. In a very real way, institutions are inherently pastoral—they seek to maintain those things that give comfort by baptizing shared values and virtues of a community. They reinforce the way things are (or were) through appeals to divine or supernatural order. They are always slow to change. Institutions resist prophets. Prophets question. They push for things to be different. They push people to behave better toward one another. They want change.”

—Diana Butler Bass, “Christianity After Religion”

In response to the prophetic call, those that hold positions of power, wealth and influence in the church become threatened, fearful and angry. They tend to see the call for social justice as a “competing” philosophy rather than a call for repentance and change within the church. If you have all the right boxes checked off theologically, then why would you need to change something? I would charge that MacArthur and the 4000 signatures that followed are “comfortable” with their religion. And that’s the problem. Jesus didn’t call us to be comfortable. If one is not dissatisfied in some fashion with their religion then they have gotten too comfortable.

Further reading:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/divergence/2018/09/07/the-gospel-is-social-justice/

https://thewitnessbcc.com/an-open-letter-to-john-macarthur-about-social-justice/

https://sojo.net/articles/latest-evangelical-statement-and-history-stumbling-racial-justice

A Changing Religion: The Merger of Church and State

This has been lifted from a Facebook post by Bob Grayson. When the church was offered the “keys” to the Roman state in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, little did the early church fathers realize what was really happening is that they were offering the keys to the church instead. In effect, the spiritual “principalities and powers” that Paul mentions became intertwined with the very fabric of Christendom.

“A Changing Religion

 Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like non participation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

Several writings illustrate this early commitment to Jesus’ teachings on simplicity and generosity. For example, the Didache, compiled around 90 CE, says: “Share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!” [1]

The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized and largely focused on sexuality. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.”

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.

When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!

The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.”

— Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.

 [1] Didache 4:8. See Tony Jones, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community (Paraclete Press: 2009), 23. More about the Didache is available at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

The Pope, Jeffress and the Death Penalty

“Many times when I stress Jesus clear teaching on loving enemies and non-violence, someone will say, “But what about the Old Testament where God commanded violence?” Particularly people have brought up King David who was called “a man after God’s own heart” and yet participated in much violence against enemies. To that I want to say that we are called Christians, not Davidians. We follow Jesus, not David. It always baffles me when Christians treat the Captain of our faith so trivially and easily dismiss him in favor of Old Testament texts. Do we not believe that God himself came into history? Is it insignificant or does it change everything? How much do we actually “believe in Jesus”? 

But another thing I want to point out is a little passage in 1 Chronicles where David summoned all the officials of Israel for an assembly in Jerusalem including “all the officers over the tribes, the commanders of the divisions in the service of the king, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of all the property and livestock belonging to the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the brave warriors.” This is what he said:

“Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a man of war and have shed blood.'” (1 Chronicles 28:1-3)

Wait a second, didn’t God command all the bloodshed and violence? Does this not bring that into question? What a shocking and historical statement to make to the entire military of Israel. The “man after God’s own heart” was denied his desire to build God a temple because he was a “man of war” and had shed blood. Perhaps King David was such a man after God’s own heart that even in his time, when violence was seen as the divine way, he was ahead of his time in beginning to see God’s true heart on this matter. This is an Old Testament foreshadow of what was clearly revealed in Christ, and the true hope of God’s kingdom and the building of his temple (us).”

— Jacob M. Wright

What I think we have here is an example of the ancient practice of claiming God is on your side to justify violence, and then David’s growing realization that killing another human could not possibly be a loving God’s desire. A recent example of this was the Pope’s condemnation of capitol punishment as being counter to the teachings of Christ. A telling rebuff was President Trump’s evangelical advisory panel member, Robert Jeffress: 

“When an individual takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘murder.’ When the government takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘justice.'” …“I’m sure Pope Francis is a good man who is sincere in his belief. But the Pope is sincerely wrong on this. Popes, pastors, and churches may change their opinions, but God’s Word never changes. ‘Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven’ (Psalm 119:89).” *

It is here we can clearly see the problem inherent to evangelical theology… “God’s Word never changes.” The assumption is that there is no progression of thought about God and ethics in scripture, and that the Bible sprung fully formed from God’s mind like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. It totally discounts the humanity of scripture, and in practice places cherry-picked violent passages as more authoritative than Jesus’ own teachings. It is a slippery slope that has historically allowed the church to justify very un-Christlike behaviors. Like King David of old, evangelicals end up creating a god in their own image. A god that satisfies their own violent and selfish appetites for revenge. Rather than allowing scripture to show progress in understanding God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, it is forced into a theological box of man’s own creation.

The ironic thing about treating scripture in this manner, is, that despite the claim that they are “honoring” scripture in this way, a finished, inerrant, propositional scripture allows quite a bit of wiggle room and unethical behavior. It is quite easily twisted, as it has been reformed in man’s own understanding of how a propositional rule book would look.

I have quite a few run ins with both atheists and fundamentalist Christians over the violence in scripture. As a progressive I get hit from both sides. Atheists almost universally seem to understand the Bible as fundamentalists do, inerrant and spoken by God. It is a straw man argument that they can easily attack. My dear evangelical brethren, on the other hand, insist on defending scripture as accurately depicting God’s violence (justice). Both sides feel this is the only way to interpret scripture: literally, and neither will admit to their presuppositions. …Very frustrating.

The truth of the matter is that scripture is the word of God, small letter “w.” As John tells us, Jesus is the Word of God, big letter “W.” This worshipping of the Bible creates a false idol of something that should be cherished but subservient to Jesus, not lord over him. Let’s get our priorities straight.

* http://www.firstdallas.org/news/pastor-robert-jeffress-pope-is-dead-wrong-about-capital-punishment/

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Rome

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the church over the centuries has been related to how the church is to manifest the Kingdom of God in society. One of the main purposes of my blog and indeed, why, a half dozen years ago I decided to “deconstruct” my evangelical assumptions, can be summed up in a desire to better manifest the Kingdom of God. The gospel message is about the Kingdom of God and not, as in evangelicalism, about what you must do to avoid hell and “go to heaven when you die.”

When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the “king of the Jews,” his reply of “my kingdom is not of this world,” seems to have never fully registered with his followers in the centuries that followed. Looking at the social milieu in the first century we see a Palestine under Roman control. Israel has faced a number of centuries being conquered and reconquered by foreign powers. In other words, a theocratic state conquered and ruled by secular states. In order to survive and maintain some degree of power, the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Pharisees compromised with the Roman government. In doing so, they took on the methods of Rome: quest for power, control, wealth, in other words, their own self-interests. The common person was largely left out of the equation and reaped little benefit form the merger of church and state. In fact, they suffered because of it. 

In a blatant rebuff of an earthly theocratic rulership, Jesus declares the Kingdom of God is not “of this world.” This is something he conveyed over and over in his parables and is the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount: the Kingdom of God is not like early kingdoms. It is worth pondering for a moment. If God’s Kingdom is not of this world, was a theocratic state, i.e., Israel, ever really a “final plan” of God’s, or was it a misunderstanding, a tribalistic anachronism of Moses and Aaron’s? Certainly, the tribalistic, warrior God of early Israel seems at odds with the Heavenly Father Jesus portrays.

In large part, Jesus’ clashes with the religious leadership was over collusion. When religion merges with the state, it is religion that suffers or is diminished. So how is it that the Kingdom of God is to flourish among men (and women)? The key to understanding is scattered throughout his teaching via parable. Parables were a popular teaching method in the first century and allowed Jesus to be subversive to the Jewish leadership in a way that the common folk could understand and agree with, but not give legal reason for his arrest. It bought him time to get his message out before his inevitable arrest and murder by the state.

Jesus knew, no doubt, that his “good news” was good news to the poor, the sick, those rejected by the religious powers, but would be a threat to those who colluded with Rome. The growth and distribution of the Kingdom of God was not to follow an earthly blueprint. Like a tiny mustard seed it would start small and eventually snowball into something huge. But not by coercion or manipulation. Not by putting the Ten Commandments back in courtrooms, not by putting Bibles in classrooms, not by having compulsory prayer in our schools, not by passing legislation to deny women, minorities and foreigners equal rights, but by the selflessness of people sharing the love of God to others. For almost 300 years this was the paradigm of the early church, in stark contrast to the Jewish-Roman collusion, which did not end well for the Jews.

But, then, in the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine, a ruthless violent man, “converted,” i.e., saw the advantage of merging the growing Christian church with his secular power regime. The early church fathers, tired of the relentless persecution, did exactly what the Jews had done in the first century, they colluded with the enemy of the Kingdom of God. To some, this was seen as a godsend, the opportunity to spread the gospel unhindered by persecution. In retrospect it allowed a perverted and unhealthy church to grow in power, wealth and influence. In time holding the “keys to the Kingdom” meant the religious controlling majority could not only declare heresy, or anathematize “false teachers,” but arrest and execute those who did not toe the line.

History had repeated itself. The lesson that collusion with the state does not end well, as with the Jews, was a lesson not learned. The entire Middle Ages was squandered by the Church of Rome consolidating its stranglehold on Europe. And again, with the Reformation and it’s break with Catholicism, the same mistake of collusion was made. Some finer points of theology had shifted but the Reformers policies were straight out of the Catholic playbook.

Fast forward to the 18th century. Christianity in Europe had become, state religions. Dying institutions propped up by the secular governments as a way of morally legitimizing their harsh governments. Ah, the great American democratic experiment. Unfortunately, again a major misunderstanding of how the Kingdom of God operates. The cries of religious freedom were then, as they are now, primarily not about freedom for all, but freedom to practice particular forms of religion at the exclusion of others. Slavery, the seizure of tribal lands and subsequent displacement of First Nation peoples and the various persecutions of Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Mormons, etc., all an outgrowth of a nation who fancied herself, “Christian.” Yep, collusion again.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. This is what the American church is guilty of, colluding with the state and eventually expecting it to result in the Kingdom of God. The evangelical church over a two century period, enjoyed a tremendous growth, not only in numbers, but in power and prestige. It identified completely with the nationalist interests of the American government. The government, as conceived by the fathers of our nation, became an object of worship, in its romanticized form by the conservative church.

Any hint of change to the chummy relationship the church had developed with civil government was seen as an attack on “Christian values.” This is the tragedy of Trump Christianity: the Right has so thoroughly mixed partisan right wing conservatism with Christian ideals, that the Gospel of the Kingdom has been pushed out. Now, with the major shift in American ideology away from conservatism and towards equal rights  and inclusivity, the Religious Right is majorly threatened. It would mean the death of “church as usual.”

This is an observation I made a few posts back, that society is advancing morally faster than the Religious Right is. Society as a whole, is acting more Christlike than the church. The goal or methodology of the church, in its endeavor to bring the Kingdom to earth, is not to impose legal sanctions and laws against what it determines to be “sin,” but to simply love others, regardless, and seek justice, mercy and grace for all mankind. This is not meek pacifism, but a call to action. Actions that will have an effect on society for the better.